Social media can be an excellent learning tool, but it also comes with physical dangers – ones that could affect your health and your career as a dancer.
Like most dancers, your Instagram feed is probably taken up with gorgeous poses, inspirational quotes and other images and videos that motivate you to excel at your craft. There are likely a few accounts you are particularly devoted to – but are they doing you more harm than good?
“This is a topic that is extremely pertinent right now,” says Lisa Howell, respected dance physical therapist and owner of www.theballetblog.com. “Young students are copying their idols on Instagram, and putting themselves at serious risk of injury.”
The biggest issue is that people have different body types. A movement or position that might come easily to one dancer, could be impossible – or dangerous – to another.
“You also don’t know the history of the person in the photograph,” says Lisa. “How long they’ve been training, how many hours a week they’re dancing, whether or not they’re in pain. I know quite a few girls who are ‘Insta-famous’ but are carrying several injuries.”
If you’re thinking about copying anything you see on the Internet, whether it’s a pose, a routine or a new stretching technique, it’s vital to check with an experienced dance teacher, physical therapist or other health professional first. Also, make sure that they are qualified, as there are several people in the industry claiming to be something they are not.
“With any particular pose, there is always a process of getting to it safely. It’s not something you can do overnight, and some poses may not actually be possible, or safe, for all dancers. Often pushing directly into the desired position is the slowest and most dangerous way of getting there. There are often multiple components involved in achieving any position, and especially for young students, simply trying over and over to do something that is too advanced, carries an enormous risk of injury.”
There are various moves in particular that are currently trending, which Lisa advises extreme caution on, including any kind of oversplit, extreme leg mounts, ‘scorpions’ and standing on top of the feet (with the toes bent underneath). We will look at each of these positions in detail in upcoming articles.
One of the main issues is that there are some very influential people offering advice and tutorials and, in the world of social media, everyone appears to be an expert. But it’s crucial to make sure the person you’re taking advice from has a good basis for giving it – a long-term basis, not just a couple of years of doing something.
“There’s a 12-year-old girl who does flexibility tutorials on YouTube with over 200,000 views. She’s an extremely hyper-mobile little girl, and one of her second exercises is popping straight down into the splits. She is a 12 year old child, and as far as I am aware has no education or authority at all to be teaching. Yet she is – and people are listening to her. You must be extremely careful of who you listen to, as what has worked for them may not necessarily be safe for you.”
Just like ‘in real life’, there is often pressure to conform to what you see on social media, but it’s important not to judge yourself against other dancers. We all develop at different rates, so just because you see someone doing a certain movement at a certain age, it doesn’t mean you should be able to do it at the same age. Don’t beat yourself up – the most important thing is to train safely, at an appropriate level for your own personal stage of development. Keep an eye on your long term goals, rather than getting distracted by short term achievements that do not really add to them.
“Some steps that are fine for an adult to perform are not safe for children. Especially between the ages of 8 and 14, when the growth plates are really active, things like dropping to the knees, using a foot-stretcher or over-pushing into second position can cause serious, long term damage. When the pelvis, knees and feet are very vulnerable, we must be extremely careful about using any kind of force. Force is not actually needed; there are much more intelligent and safe ways of getting amazing range without using force.”
“A lot of people are treating children’s bodies as disposable and I do not agree with that at all.”
Everybody has their own journey, their own strengths and their own list of things to keep working on. And even if something feels OK now, you could be doing damage to your body which will only show up later in life – and may stop you from dancing altogether.
So always ask yourself: Will it be worth it in the long run? How long do you want to continue to dance for? For most of us, because we love dance so much, the answer will be ‘forever’. But we need to be smart if we want that to be a reality.
“You only have one body for the rest of your life,” says Lisa, “so make sure anything you’re doing is sustainable, not just to get a few ‘likes’ in the short term.”
It’s also important to remember that physical capabilities, such as being able to put your leg behind your head, do not make you a good dancer. As Lisa says: “That just means you can put your leg behind your head. There are very few professional dance pieces that actually require that. If you’re aiming for a career as a dancer, I highly advise against any of the extreme mobility kind of stretching that is popular now, because you seriously risk doing long-term damage that may mean you won’t actually be able to make it as a dancer. Damage to the hip capsule and labrum can be extremely hard to rehabilitate from and can be career ending.”
“It’s important for the parents of dance students to look at the training their children are doing and realize the potential for long-term damage, and then make an educated decision as to whether or not it is worth it,” says Lisa.
There ARE safe ways to achieve your goals, appropriate to your age and stage of development. Use social media for inspiration, but don’t be pressured by what you see. Everybody is different, and the most important thing is that you build a strong and safe future for yourself, whatever your goals may be.
By Rain Francis of Dance Informa.